He was Jewish and one of the 20th century’s greatest writers — but was he a Jewish writer?
For those already familiar with the work of Nelson Algren, best known for his 1949 novel, “The Man with the Golden Arm,” which starred Frank Sinatra in the iconic film version, Michael Caplan’s documentary, “Algren,” is an engaging tribute to a writer who championed the lives of hookers, hustlers and addicts who found solace in a bottle of whiskey or a shot of heroin. He described their world in poetic prose. It was an unprecedented coupling of social realism, and the proletariat politics implied, with stylized, heightened language that was at once hard-boiled and elegiac.
“The Man with the Golden Arm” won the first National Book Award and Algren’s legion of fans included Richard Wright, Kurt Vonnegut, Ernest Hemingway and Studs Terkel (interviewed in the film) who said Algren was a major influence on his writings. Along with “Golden Arm,” Algren was known for his story collection “The Neon Wilderness” and the novel, “A Walk on the Wild Side.”
But for moviegoers not familiar with Algren’s writings, which arguably reflect a sensibility and esthetic that have long since fallen out of favor, the film may not serve as a compelling introduction. His work quoted throughout at times evokes a film noir sendup or, worse, an unbearably sentimentalized vision of the lower depths. As a character in his own right Algren can feel a tad archaic too. What in the early 60s may have been viewed as devilishly charming could be seen today as borderline misogynistic. In one of his many flirtations he sends a woman he barely knows a drawing of his erect penis. At best, this is creepy.
Nonetheless, the film brings to life Algren’s time and place, which is enhanced by archival footage and especially photographer Art Shay’s haunting black and white shots of a gritty midcentury Chicago. The pictures serve as a vivid backdrop to Algren’s journey, Chicago’s native son, and are interwoven with an array of known and lesser-known interviewees offering recollections and commentary. These include film producers, directors, writers, a professor and an antiquarian bookseller.
Contrary to what you might expect, Algren was raised in a middle-class neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. More striking, he was Jewish, though few would label him a “Jewish writer.” His family was secular and Jewishness played no role in Algren’s identity. That said, I wish the director at least touched on the topic, however briefly. Its absence leaves questions dangling.
Algren majored in journalism at the University of Illinois and graduated in 1931 at the height of the Depression when no newspaper jobs were available. For a while he lived as a hobo; once, he stole a typewriter and was ultimately nabbed in Texas. A five-month stint in the slammer introduced him to society’s most marginalized whom he came to believe were dealt a raw deal and had little choice in life. His sympathies lay with the convicts, not their victims.
His encounters in jail inspired his work. And, although Algren loved being a media darling and the high-blown parties he attended, he grappled with issues of street cred and tried to maintain his artistic integrity. He didn’t want to be misconstrued as a member of the literary elite, kowtowing to its patrons; at a formal dinner, he sported a tattered rope as a substitute for a belt.
Algren had a comic streak and it’s up for grabs to what degree his hobbies, fascinations or even viewpoints were real or put on or somewhere in between. He said he played a mean game of poker although, according to all accounts, he was a very poor player.
He was married three times, twice to the same woman and had a long-term widely-publicized and highly improbable affair with Simone de Beauvoir who was intermittently living with Jean-Paul Sartre at the same time. She was an intellectual while he was (or worked at being) a scrappy back alley character. Algren was writing “Golden Arm” when she was working on her landmark feminist work, “The Second Sex.”
Algren wanted to marry de Beauvoir, but she was not interested in matrimony and in the end went back to Sartre. Their failed relationship left him deeply wounded, although in later years he was dismissive of it, pretending he barely remembered her. He referred to de Beauvoir as the French schoolteacher, and told a reporter nonchalantly, “I guess I liked her. We traveled together.”
Despite his posing and grandstanding, Algren comes off as a rather sad character. By the mid-60s, his fortunes and reputation on the decline; he eked out a living writing travel stories, book reviews and features. He landed in Vietnam allegedly to cover the war, but found he could make more money selling (one assumes drugs) on the black market. In the mid-70s, he wrote about the trial of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the boxer convicted of a triple murder. As part of his research he traveled to Paterson, New Jersey, and was seduced by its working class desolation and seediness. Within short order he was living in a bleak apartment there.
In his final years, he bought a small house in Sag Harbor in a community of writers who admired and welcomed him. He died of a massive coronary in 1981. At his funeral, an unknown, spectral red haired beauty surfaced as if out of nowhere. She said she was there to thank him. No one knew what she was referring to; it was a secret he took to his grave.
“Algren” is a well-rounded provocative narrative. Still, I wish there had been more literary background to place Algren is a larger context. What were the cultural forces that made him obsolete or transitional? How have his views morphed or been reinvented and by whom? I was also troubled by some of the voice-over narration. It was not always clear who was speaking and what (or who) was being quoted.
“Algren” is not an easy film to grasp in one viewing. I saw it twice. Still, it is worth the effort for its depiction of an important literary figure and singular character spawned by an era long gone.
Simi Horwitz won a 2018 Front Page Award from the Newswomen’s Club of New York for her Forward story, “Ruchie Freier: Hasidic Judge, American Trailblazer.” She received two 2020 New York Press Club Awards, three 2021 National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, and a 2021 Simon Rockower Award. She came in first place at the 2021 SoCal Journalism Awards (given by the LA Press Club) for her Forward story, “Gloria Steinem is Having a Moment.”